Memories of Germany in ’80s Beirut

BEIRUT: “It has a certain urgency,” Volker Schloendorff says of “The Forest Maker,” the working title of his latest documentary project. “It’s about trees, the climate and reforestation. The protagonist could be from a novel.

“[Tony Rinaudo is] an Australian agronomist who won the ‘alternative Nobel prize.’ For many years now he’s been growing forests in the African Sahel, not by planting trees, but by reactivating the root systems, what he calls the underground forests waiting to grow again.

“I just spent four weeks with him in Mali and Niger. ... It’s the opposite of war.”

The veteran German filmmaker is best-known for films about war, particularly his 1979 adaption of Gunter Grass’ novel “The Tin Drum.” In Lebanon’s cinema history, Schloendorff is remembered for his adaptation of Nicolas Born’s 1979 novel “Circle of Deceit,” the story of a German war correspondent covering Lebanon’s Civil War, which he shot in Lebanon.

This year’s edition of German Film Week and Talents Beirut brought the filmmaker back to Beirut for his first visit since 1981. He introduced some films in a small retrospective of his work, and, following a projection of “Circle of Deceit” to a capacity audience, he held a public master class.

Before the master class, Schloendorff sat with The Daily Star to reflect upon the “Circle of Deceit” shoot and its place in his career. For 15 years, he said, he was a self-consciously German filmmaker.

“Then came ‘The Tin Drum,’ an unexpectedly huge success. Then I felt like I was free to break out of the boundaries of German culture.”

With Born’s novel, Lebanon was his door to the world.

“I still had a German protagonist, so that was OK,” he smiled. “I wasn’t pretending to be Lebanese. I think this film must be disturbing to Lebanese because it was meant for a European audience, which was ignorant of this conflict, for whom it was just one of these conflicts far away we read about in the paper or see on the news.”

“Circle of Deceit” is a remarkable document. Its story offers a critique of the neurotic foreign correspondents whose coverage of conflict zones feeds the daily news cycle - later echoed in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” 1982, and “The Killing Fields,” 1984.

The film stars Bruno Ganz and Hannah Schygulla, among German cinema’s most enduring talents, supported by an array of professional and nonprofessional actors (including working journalists and militiamen) from Lebanon and abroad.

While the film is about foreigners trying to behave nobly (while veering to the dubious) in another country, its locations - Beirut and its environs as it looked before the 1982 Israeli siege - make the film a valuable historical document as well as a piece of cinema history.

“That’s my feelings walking through Beirut streets now,” Schloendorff nodded. “From time to time you see a building, especially around the Place de l’Etoile, that reminds you. Even there, they’re somehow preserved but you have the feeling nobody’s living in them.

“My DP [cinematographer Igor Luther] and I had long debates. ‘Should we shoot reportage-style - hand-held camera, very shaky - to pretend that it was all real? Or should we use a crane, with tracking shots and everything well established?’

“I said, ‘Let’s do it opera style,’” he laughed, “clearly staged movement, the sort of thing you don’t expect in a war zone, but I was not aware that this would enormously help the documentary side of the film. If we had some shaky hand-held footage of the city, it wouldn’t be as interesting as these established shots.”

Schloendorff’s experience of shooting in early ’80s Beirut sounds alien to anyone trying to shoot a feature today, whether in this region or outside. “[We made] almost no compromises because there was no authority,” he chuckles. “We never got any permit from anybody because there was no one who could, or would, give a permit for anything.

“We did have to choose where to make the movie and for obvious reasons it was going to be West Beirut, mostly under the control of Palestinian fighters and the Syrian army, but they didn’t care. It was a movie.”

The shoot’s technical challenges, he recalled, were those of any filmmaker working on location outside Europe at the time.

“The rushes had to be sent to a lab in Paris. Two weeks later they came back, without sound, because the old techniques didn’t allow you to screen sound.

“There were still one or two cinemas still operating in Hamra. We’d wait until after the last picture show at 10:30 p.m. so we could watch our stuff. In this cinema where went for a number of weeks in a row, [Bob Fosse’s 1979 musical] ‘All That Jazz’ was always playing.

“We’d sit through the last 10 minutes before running our stuff. That’s when there was this big number ‘Bye bye happiness, I think I’m gonna die.’ It became our anthem the next morning on the set,” he chuckled. “As hand grenades or RPGs went off in the neighborhood, everybody would start to sing, ‘Bye bye happiness.’

“You know,” he leaned forward, “I hate veteran stories. We were never in danger. We just did what a million other people in the city did, which was to go on living, pretending that you could lead a normal life.

“Our first trip, in the summer of 1980, was to find out how the city looks and whether it’s even conceivable to do something here or would we have to restage it someplace else.

“Journalists, actors, people I met from all sides of Lebanon, they all said, ‘You must do it here. Of course it’s feasible. Look at us. We’re living here,’” he added.

“Circle of Deceit” was Schloendorff’s first feature outside Germany, yet he said it was the shoot that most reminded him of his own youth.

“I was born in ’39, so I grew up in completely destroyed cities. When I was 5, 6, 7 years old, the most adventurous place to play was ruins. There was lots of guns and ammunition. We were very good at handling them. You could find them anywhere. We opened them, took off the lead bullets in front - they went in one basket - put the powder to one side - they made a nice little fire - and the casing goes in another basket,” he laughed. “Those were very valuable, these rare metals.

“When I saw the kids playing opposite the ruins of the Phoenicia Hotel, that was the first thing that struck me. They burned tires and rolled them down the rubble. I felt immediately very connected but also to a certain sadness on their faces. That was something very strong for me.”

The late filmmaker Jocelyne Saab, then in her 20s, played a key role in connecting Schloendorff to these youngsters.

“She’d already made two documentaries about the children of the war. She had this very useful connection. It wasn’t about the ruins. It was what was left of life in the ruins and how another generation would grow up there.

“I’ve shot more than 30 films,” he said, “but the experience of making this film was stronger than any other. It’s actually much stronger than what I see on screen. For once, what we lived through in making it was far more spectacular and exciting than what ended up on screen.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 02, 2019, on page 8.




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